Sunday 27 December 2009

Different Skins, by Gary McMahon

Different Skins collects two novellas, “Even the Dead Die” and the shorter “In the Skin”, both by Gary McMahon. They share certain themes – death, identity, skin, gender relations – but are otherwise separate. The marvellous cover is by Vincent Chong.

In “Even the Dead Die” Mike Angelo (his parents must have had a sense of humour) moves through a London that he despises, soon discovering that there’s a worse London beneath. It’s a story of death, rape, murder, prostitution and sexual slavery. Structurally, there are similarities with things like Neverwhere or The Matrix, but in tone it’s closer to the movies of Clive Barker. I won’t say anything more about Mike’s discoveries; I don’t want to spoil the novella for anyone; but as you might expect they are shocking, horrifying and gruesomely entertaining.

This novella was bit of a tough read, even allowing for the gruelling subject matter, because it was marred by mistakes and patches of clunky, awkward writing. Some sentences looked good on the surface but didn’t stand up to scrutiny, while other sentences were overloaded with redundant words. For example see p. 40: “This was becoming repetitive, but despite all the information (he) was imparting, he was going nowhere near the answer to the only question that really mattered.” It’s not exactly wrong, but it’s not exactly elegant either.

Some sentences don’t quite slot together. For example, there was “a lengthy silence on the line, which was soon filled by the sound of Aunt Hilda crying” (p. 21) (was the silence lengthy or soon filled?), and “I needed air, even if it was the polluted miasma that hangs above London like a cloud of radioactive leakage” (p. 24) (if it’s a cloud above London will he be breathing it?). After a revelatory chat, his “mind was drowning in all this sensory information” (p. 52) – presumably the chat was accompanied by a laser show!

The opening line is already infamous: “London is an open wound … through which oozes the rancid puss of society.” And no, this isn’t a story about zombie cats. I’d guess the old lady with the hot body is supposed to be disconcertingly erotic rather than “discerningly erotic” (p. 54), though both could well apply, and when a baddie gets his just desserts I think the process probably involves being pulled apart rather than telling lies (“quickly dissembling him” (p. 67). There’s also a pile of smaller errors and the impression is unfortunately of a story that didn’t go through a proper editorial process.

Still, despite its flaws, it has many strong moments, lots of good ideas, and (as Tim Lebbon notes in his introduction) is written with exceptional passion. If the production is poor, the story being told is more than good enough to compensate and make this a very worthwhile and memorable read.

“In the Skin”, though, was better in every way. Dan goes on a business trip to New York, leaving behind his wife Adi and young son Max. Upon his return, his wife seems jumpy and his son seems unusually bulky. What has happened to them in his absence? And who’s that crawling around in the garden?

As with “Even the Dead Die”, the story is powerful and frightening. There is still the occasional mistake (how could he have watched both planes crash live on 9/11, and how does his laptop’s operating system run once the entire hard drive has been wiped?) but the language is leaner, direct and much less wordy – and hence more impactful. The writing is just plain better.

The author’s notes at the back of the book suggest “In the Skin” was written much more recently than the story that shares its covers (circa 2008, compared to 2002 for at least the first two parts of “Even the Dead Die”), so maybe that explains the differences between them. Either way, this was a very enjoyable book, and if my experience of the same author’s Rain Dogs is anything to go by, within a month or two I’ll have forgotten the mistakes and be rhapsodizing about the bits I loved.

Different Skins, by Gary McMahon, Screaming Dreams, pb, 120pp.

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